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Reed Scherer: Rock star

March 26, 2012
Reed Scherer

Reed Scherer

In contemporary and geologic terms, Reed Scherer simply rocks.

The NIU geology professor – who directs the new Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy (ESE Institute) – excels at just about everything: inspirational teacher, world-renowned polar scientist, institutional innovator.

“Professor Scherer does not just teach students about science,” says Joseph Peterson, who earned his Ph.D. from NIU in 2010 and is now a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. “He teaches students how to be scientists.”

Scherer has long embraced the engaged-learning approach in all its variations – whether he is presenting a classroom comparison between the evolution of automobiles and organisms, working alongside students on dinosaur digs in the American West, or training the next generation of scientists while on Antarctic expeditions.

“One cannot fully understand geological concepts,” Scherer says, “until you’ve spent time both in the lab and out in the field puzzling over an outcrop, whether in Illinois, Montana or Antarctica.”

Scherer’s students – undergrads and graduate students alike – have published research in prestigious scientific journals and made presentations at conferences on five continents.

Under Scherer’s direction, current Ph.D. student Jon Warnock won two separate grants, totaling more than $300,000, from the National Science Foundation to study Antarctic fossil records. Scherer also helped Warnock and Matthew Konfirst, who earned his Ph.D. last year, land opportunities to learn from world-renowned experts at prestigious summer courses and workshops in Italy, Australia and Poland.

Both students chose to stay at NIU to work on their doctoral degrees because of the strength of Scherer’s research program.

“Reed encouraged me to broaden my horizons,” says Konfirst, now a postdoctoral research scientist at The Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center. “He left an indelible imprint on my intellectual development.”

Scherer himself earned his Ph.D. in paleontology at Ohio State and worked at a Swedish university before being recruited to NIU in 2000. He teaches a wide range of courses to undergraduate and graduate students.

Outside the university, Scherer’s research takes him to the planet’s Polar Regions, where he is working to decipher the geologic history and ongoing changes in the ice sheets by studying fossils known as diatoms. These microscopic single-celled algae live in shallow seawater and are deposited on the ocean floor, leaving behind beautifully ornate glass-like shells that tell a detailed tale of climate change over time. Geologists need to understand the past to predict the future.

In the 1990s, Scherer was a key member of a research team that confirmed the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has been unstable in the geologic past and even collapsed, raising sea levels by up to 18 feet. He and NIU colleague Ross Powell are continuing their investigations in Antarctica, where they plan to use a 28-foot-long, 2,200-pound robotic submarine to explore melting near the WAIS base.

Despite numerous international research commitments, Scherer also is a leader on campus.

In recent years, he served as interim associate dean for research and graduate affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He also was a leading proponent of the Strategic Planning initiative that resulted in the popular new environmental studies major and minor, which he oversees in his role as ESE Institute director.

“Reed epitomizes the combination of internationally recognized scholarship, excellence in teaching, engagement of students and leadership service that the Board of Trustees Professorship celebrates,” says Colin Booth, geology chair. “The geology department, the college and the university are fortunate indeed to have him.”